Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Don’t grease the squeaky wheel, realign it

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Every organisation has its share of squeaky wheels – individuals who complain loudly and demand immediate attention, regardless of the real magnitude of their problems. Often, people give these individuals priority just to shut them up. This attitude – known as greasing the squeaky wheel – is counterproductive, because the effect of the “grease” runs out sooner than one thinks. Once that happens they’ll be back, squeakier than ever.

So, if greasing the wheel isn’t an option, what else can one do? The wheel analogy suggests a couple of alternatives. Here they are:

  • Ignore it: Although ignoring the squeaky wheel is an option, it is an approach I don’t endorse. In analogy with real (i.e. circular, rotating)  wheels that have an alignment problem, the complaining is likely to get worse if ignored. Who knows, the complainer may be well connected in the organisation – in which case you’re in for some trouble. Bottom line: don’t ignore the squeakers.
  • Realign it: In the case of  real squeaky wheels, realignment is better than turning a deaf ear or applying grease because it addresses the root cause of the problem.  So how does one realign a (human) squeaky wheel? Here’s a strategy I’ve used often: Get to know the complainers better so that you can understand their role in organisation, their (perceived and real) obstacles and what they think you can do to help them.  It is best to do this in an informal setting outside the office- may be over a coffee or something. Because constant cavillers are used to being ignored,  one can often gain credibility by listening and following-up  with  a few simple actions.  Sure, on occasion you might come across a particularly intractable squeaky wheel who isn’t amenable to being realigned thus. In such cases you may, out of frustration,  consider talking to the offender’s manager. I don’t recommend this  because a) it is a one-way process that can’t be undone and b) nobody likes telltales.

Pursuing the analogy with real wheels, there are a couple of other approaches that come to mind: replace the wheel and change cars, for example. These would be analogous to firing the squeaker and changing jobs respectively. I don’t consider these as serious options because the first is very likely out of your domain of authority, and the second is simply not worth doing on account of a squeaky wheel.

Written by K

November 15, 2007 at 2:15 pm

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